In Defense of Christian Activism vs. Michael Horton and Meredith Kline1
by John M. Frame
Christian activism, by which I mean simply any Christian attempt to improve society, has had its ups and downs over the centuries. If you read a book like D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe, What If Jesus Had Never Been Born,2 you should be impressed at the great influence of the Christian gospel, and specifically Calvinism, upon western culture. I don’t want to minimize the wickedness of fallen culture. But for now I’m making the point that there is good as well. Kennedy and Newcombe emphasize that Christians, for distinctively Christian motives, have vastly influenced western culture in such areas as help for the poor, the abolition of slavery, teaching of literacy, education for all, political freedom, economic freedom, science, medicine, the family, the arts, the sanctity of life. Without Jesus, without his Gospel, without the influence of his people, all these areas of culture would be vastly different and very much worse.
But from time to time there has been a failure of nerve. None of these efforts by Christians has led to perfection. There is still much evil in the world, and there are many who would silence the Christian voice. So Christians have often been discouraged by the net results of their efforts. We recall the period from around 1925-1945 when fundamentalist Christians in America largely retreated from any kind of social action. And in the 1990s, the Moral Majority movement was disbanded, and Christian leaders like Jerry Falwell and columnist Cal Thomas disparaged Christian social activism, saying that it detracted from the Christian’s fundamental responsibility, to proclaim the gospel.
One can easily understand such retreat psychologically, as a weariness and frustration. But some writers have offered theological rationales for it. One is grounded in premillennialism: Christ may return at any moment, and so we don’t have time to try to fix society, only to rescue a few souls from damnation. This world will be destroyed and, as the old saying would have it, it is a waste of time to polish brass on a sinking ship.
I am not a premillennialist, but even if I were, I could not use this argument. We don’t know when Christ is coming. In the meantime, Scripture tells us not only to rescue people from Hell by preaching the gospel, but also to care for the poor, the orphan and the widow. It calls us to “do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (Gal. 6:10). It calls us not only to bring people to faith and baptism, but also to teach them “to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:20), which includes the pursuit of mercy and justice among human beings.
As God’s Spirit penetrates people’s hearts through the gospel, those people become new creatures (2 Cor. 5:17). They take their faith into every sphere of life, including the workplace, politics, economics, education, and the arts. And in all these realms, they seek to glorify God. They hear Paul’s exhortation in 1 Cor. 10:31, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.” They obey, imperfectly to be sure. But their incipient obedience leads to significant changes in society, as we’ve seen above.
It is true that the New Testament does not focus on the goal of improving the general society. Most of its social teaching concerns relations of love within the body of Christ. But Jesus taught his disciples to minister to people without regard to their creed or national origin (Luke 10:25-37), and Paul, as we saw, urges believers to do good “especially” to the household of faith, but not exclusively there. The early Christians did not have the power to affect much the politics and culture of the Roman empire, but they did what they could. For example, they rescued babies who had been exposed to die and brought them up in their homes.
The Romans, at least, felt threatened. “Kyrios Jesous,” Jesus is Lord, sounded all too much to them like “Kyrios Caesar,” Caesar is Lord, their own fundamental confession. Jesus did not come in his first advent to be an earthly king, but he is indeed King of Kings and Lord of Lords (Rev. 17:14, 19:16), to whom all authority has been given (Matt. 28:18). He is the mighty Son of David, whose kingdom is to stretch “from sea to sea” and “from the River to the ends of the earth” (Ps. 72:8). The Romans persecuted Christians because they believed that Christ’s kingship was a threat to Caesar. The Christians protested that Christ was not an earthly king, and that they sought to be good Roman citizens. They said that sincerely. But in time Christianity overwhelmed the Roman Empire, not by the sword, but by the power of the gospel. In time, Scripture teaches, the kingdoms of this world are to become the kingdom of Christ (Rev. 11:15). So the gospel certainly is a political movement. That is not to say that Christians should seek political power by the sword. But they should never imagine that their faith is politically irrelevant.
In time, Christians came to have more and more direct influence on society and its institutions. The Kennedy-Newcombe volume and others trace these influences. Democracy is also a product of Christian thought and influence (see, for example, Samuel Rutherford’s Lex, Rex). And under democracy, citizens have power, whether they want it or not, to effect changes in the leadership and policies of a nation. The above arguments suggest that Christians would be foolish not to participate in this process. And it goes without saying that Christians should vote, not according to the godless ideologies of the secular world, but according to the standards of the word of God. And when that happens, even more transformations take place in society.
I have dealt with the basic fundamentalist argument that would have us abandon our social responsibility and just preach the simple gospel. But there is also another argument against Christian social action that has become more popular in our day. This argument has some historical roots, being based in Luther’s distinction of “two kingdoms,”3 and it is used today particularly by confessional Lutherans and some Calvinists, most of whom, though theologically orthodox, would not want to be called fundamentalists.
Michael Horton’s article in Christianity Today, “How the Kingdom Comes”4 is a typical popular presentation of this position. He emphasizes that the Kingdom of God comes by God’s power, not ours. He points out that Jesus in the New Testament does not commission his people to destroy unbelievers with the sword. So “there are no calls in the New Testament either to withdraw into a private ghetto or to ‘take back’ the realms of cultural and political activity.” The church exists within the world as a community of word and sacrament, but does not seek influence in the larger society. He says, “there is no ‘Christian politics’ or ‘Christian art’ or ‘Christian literature,’ any more than there is ‘Christian plumbing.’” Then he urges the church not to try to be like the world, or to make the world into something like the church.
There is much truth in this position. Certainly God does not call us today to destroy unbelief with the sword, as God called Joshua to destroy the pagan inhabitants of Canaan. But one can certainly renounce the use of the sword against unbelief without renouncing Christian activism in general. Christian activism, remember, is simply the attempt of Christians to improve the general society. Especially today in the democratic west, that can be done by many lawful means, without violence.
So Horton confuses the question of whether we should use violence with the larger question of whether we should seek to influence developments in society. I believe he confuses other questions as well:
1. He brings up the distinction between the church and civil society. But one can surely acknowledge such a distinction without disavowing attempts of the former to influence the latter. So far as I know, nobody in this discussion thinks that the state should administer sacraments, or, again, that the church should lead Christians into armed warfare. So to bring up these issues is to make a straw man argument.
2. Horton asks whether the kingdom of God is a culture, created by man, or God’s sovereign action? Certainly the latter. Again, I know of no evangelical who thinks otherwise. Does this distinction mean that we should take a passive stance, waiting for God to deal with social evils, rather than seeking to alleviate them by our own resources? Scripture never draws this sort of conclusion. The sovereignty of God never excludes human responsibility in this way.
Horton’s article, at one point, even argues that we should not make special efforts to reach young people with the gospel. (He chooses some crass examples, but he evidently wants to exclude all such efforts, not just the crass ones.) He says “the Word creates its own publicity as it is preached… it creates its own relevance.” What this suggests is that since God’s own word is sovereign, powerful and clear, we need make no efforts to make it clear to people. That again, is to pit God’s sovereignty against human responsibility. If this were true, we would not make any attempt to improve communication in preaching, but should rather just wait for God to communicate. This is unbiblical and foolish. Even to preach the gospel in English rather than Greek is to make a human effort to make God’s word clear.
There are dangers here, to be sure. But the Book of Acts shows that Paul spoke differently to Jews than to Greeks. He took differences in language and culture into account (cf. 1 Cor. 9:19-23). Obviously, we do not present the gospel to five-year-old children the same way we present it to campus intellectuals. To say that “the Word creates its own relevance” is true in a sense, but if it is taken to imply that we do not need to take our audience into account in our communication, this statement is a recipe for failure. The application of this to our central discussion is that although the kingdom comes through God’s sovereign action, that doesn’t exclude human efforts to bring the word of God to bear on society.
3. Should Christians seek to “transform their workplace, neighborhood, or nation into the kingdom of Christ?” Again, God brings the kingdom in his own time. And again, this fact does not rule out human attempts to improve society. If by “transforming the workplace… into the kingdom of Christ” Horton means transforming the workplace into a church, of course we should not do that. But this is irrelevant to the question of whether to pursue biblical standards in the workplace, neighborhood, and nation. We cannot turn the workplace into a church, but we can certainly make it a better workplace as we accept our responsibility as Christians to take captive every thought to the obedience of Christ (2 Cor. 10:5).
4. Should we support every political or artistic movement that calls itself Christian? Certainly not. But that does not refute the possibility that some such movements may be worthy of Christian support.
5. Should the church “bind Christian consciences beyond Scripture?” No. Horton evidently thinks this is what happens when the church advocates Christian politics, etc. But that is not necessarily the case. On the best view of the matter, Christian political action is simply applying the principles of Scripture to political life: the sanctity of truth and life, the integrity of the family, protection of property, and so on. Christians should not hold these principles in the church and deny them in their public life. Of course, there are legitimate areas of debate as to precisely what policies constitute applications of Scripture. But these debates do not invalidate the attempt to apply Scripture to society. In principle, it is no more difficult to apply Scripture to social issues than to apply it to issues of church doctrine and government.
6. Should the church, then, be like the culture, as it seeks to be an agent of cultural change? (a) In some ways, absolutely not. It should teach and model biblical standards of sexuality, for example, which are quite opposite to those in the world. (b) In other ways, certainly. If we are to carry out the Great Commission, we must, like Paul, speak the language of people around us, “become all things to all men that by all means I may save some” (1 Cor. 9:22). Given the distinction between (a) and (b) we should not discourage Christian activism on the ground that it makes the church “like the world.”
7. Should believers “share with unbelievers in pain and pleasure, poverty and wealth, hurricanes and holidays” until Jesus’ return? Sure. But that says nothing against Christian attempts to improve that shared culture by use of God’s revealed wisdom.
Horton, therefore, seeks to discourage Christian cultural activism, by linking it up with various evils, such as (1) identifying church and state, (2) denying God’s sovereignty, (3) confusing culture with God’s kingdom, (4) bad “Christian” art, etc., (5) binding Christian consciences beyond Scripture, (6) Christians adopting the sins of culture, (7) failure to acknowledge a shared culture. But a right kind of Christian activism entails none of these evils. These are a smokescreen, irrelevant to the conclusion Horton seeks to argue.
So, is there such a thing as Christian politics or art? (a) The answer to this question obviously does not follow from the answers to #1-#7 above, as Horton seems to think it does. (b) In the most obvious meaning, “Christian politics” simply refers to Christians making their political decisions on biblical principles. In that sense, there certainly is such a thing as Christian politics. Similarly, art and other cultural activities. (c) If Horton means to deny that we should apply biblical standards to public issues, then he certainly holds a very radical position. This does not follow from any of his previous argumentation, and there is no argument for it in the article. In my judgment this conclusion is directly contrary to 1 Cor. 10:31, “whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
There is one more argument, however, that we should think about, one that I think plays a major role in Horton’s own thinking, but which he mentions in the article only very briefly:
Is Jesus Christ Lord over secular powers and principalities? At least in Reformed theology, the answer is yes, though he is Lord in different ways over the world and the church. God presently rules the world through providence and common grace, while he rules the church through Word, sacrament, and covenantal nurture.
A reader might wonder what this distinction has to do with the question of Christian social activism. Nobody can doubt that God rules the world through providence and common grace, but how does that fact bear on whether or not Christians should try to change society? The answer is that “providence and common grace” are code-terms for a complicated theological position that Horton works from, but does not express directly, in this article.
That position is the Lutheran “two kingdoms” doctrine, which I mentioned before. In other writings, Horton links this doctrine to Meredith G. Kline’s doctrine of a “common grace” realm.5 The kingdom of “common grace” or of God’s “left hand” (Luther) is a realm in which the state rules by natural revelation, rather than by the whole biblical word of God. That realm is religiously neutral. I have criticized this position extensively elsewhere (see footnote 2). I see no biblical basis for suggesting that any sphere of human activity is not to be governed by God’s full revelation, or that any human project should not acknowledge God.
To be sure, God brings his common grace to all his creatures, and they are all aware of his natural revelation. But Paul in Rom. 1 teaches that the unregenerate repress natural revelation and prefer to live lives of sin. The only remedy is special revelation, the gospel. So Calvin taught that nobody can appreciate natural revelation without the “spectacles” of Scripture. There is, therefore, no human activity that can function as God intended by natural revelation alone. We are to do all things to the glory of God in Christ (1 Cor. 10:31), to bring every thought captive to the Lord (2 Cor. 10:5). Every human institution must acknowledge him as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, for that is what he is.
Kline believes that the Israelite theocracy was a “holy” state, but that all other governments are unholy, common, or profane, and thus part of the “common grace realm,” and not subject to special revelation. Israel, to be sure, had a special relation to God as God’s holy people. But Scripture never suggests that pagan governments are not responsible to God’s special revelation. Indeed, Israelite prophets brought God’s special revelation to bear against Babylon, Assyria, Moab, Cush, Egypt, Tyre, and Sidon, as well as Israel (as Isa. 13-23), and against Rome (the Book of Revelation).
To deny the two-kingdoms view is not to identify the kingdom of God with fallen culture, or to make any of the other errors discussed in #1-#7 above.
More can be said about the two kingdoms doctrine. But the important thing to remember here is that Horton has offered no persuasive argument for his very radical conclusion. He writes engagingly, but his discussion is highly confused and unpersuasive.
It is interesting to me, also, that despite their polemic against Christian activism, Horton (and others who hold the two-kingdoms view, like Gene Veith) do not hesitate to criticize culture in print, from various biblical perspectives. Are these articles only for the benefit of the church, written without any hope at all that they might influence the unbelieving culture? I doubt it. But then Horton and Veith like others of us, have engaged in Christian activism, however contrary that may be to their principles.6
Beyond the premillennial-fundamentalist arguments and the Horton-Kline common-grace argument, I know of no other serious arguments against Christian activism.7 So I urge Christians to bring the standards of the word of God to bear on matters of culture and politics, as well as matters that are more narrowly theological.
In taking this position, I follow Abraham Kuyper, the great Dutch statesman, theologian, and journalist. Kuyper of course made the famous statement that there is no square inch of territory in the whole universe over which Christ does not say “this is mine.” See his Lectures on Calvinism for his views on how Calvinism has influenced the arts, politics, economics, etc.
I also follow Cornelius Van Til, who taught apologetics at Westminster Seminary in Philadelphia for many years. Van Til was Kuyperian through and through, maintaining that the Bible “speaks about everything” and encouraging his students and readers to apply the Scriptures to every sphere of life. So he supported Christian schools very vigorously. And CVT quoted passages like 1 Cor. 10:31 and 2 Cor. 10:5 all the time, to that effect. He emphasized that the real issues in every sphere of human activity were religious. No doubt he would say that the “common grace realm” of Luther, Kline, and Horton is a sphere of “religious neutrality,” a realm where human reason should seek to interpret the data of natural revelation without the aid of Scripture. And Van Til, following Kuyper, believed there was no such realm.
In the Kuyperian view, all the ills of society are essentially religious. They stem from people worshiping false gods. Either sinners worship the gods of some pagan ideology, or they give primacy to their own autonomous thought. It is such false religion that leads to war, violence, disdain for the poor, abortion, adultery, divorce, and homosexuality. Insofar as the Kline-Horton view obscures the religious nature of our cultural and political issues, it confuses Christians as to their responsibilities.
In the general society as well as in the church, Christians should settle for nothing less than the comprehensive lordship of Jesus Christ. He is King of Kings and Lord of Lords. To say this is not to advocate violent revolution in Jesus’ name. He has forbidden us to take that course. But by his word and Spirit, by his love, and by wise use of the means available to us, we seek to exalt him, not only in the church, but in the whole world.
1 This article, in a shorter version, was originally published in Christian Culture (April, 2006), 1-4. It is posted here by permission.
2 Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1994.
3 I have discussed this distinction, its history and its ramifications, often in my Doctrine of the Christian Life, forthcoming. See esp. chapters 12, 14, 17, 29, 32, 45-46.
4 50.1 (Jan., 2006), 42. I am using the version posted at https://www.christianitytoday.com/global/printer.html?/ct/2006/001/2.43.html.
5 Kline, Kingdom Prologue (Privately published, 1991).
6 Kline, too, wrote an exegetical article opposing abortion. See his “Lex Talionis and the Human Fetus,” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society 20.3 (Sept., 1977), 193-201.
7 There is also the Anabaptist argument that the state is Satanic. But Christians of Anabaptist background are among those most involved in Christian activism today.